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Reviews

Prom 51: Wagner, Strauss and Nørgård - BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, London Voices and National Youth Chamber Choir of Great Britain, conducted by Thomas Dausgaard
22 Aug 2018

PROM 51 - Wagner, Strauss and a Nørgård UK premiere

Eclectic, even visionary, Proms are one of the great hallmarks of this summer music festival - and this concert certainly fell into that category. On paper, little seemed to unify the first and second halves of the programme: Wagner and Richard Strauss with a (very overdue) UK premiere of Per Nørgård’s Third Symphony.

Prom 51: Wagner, Strauss and Nørgård - BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, London Voices and National Youth Chamber Choir of Great Britain, conducted by Thomas Dausgaard

A review by Marc Bridle

Above: Thomas Dausgaard

Photo credit: Thomas Grøndahl

 

We had music from the end of two composers’ careers, poised against music from the early period of another, and yet there was considerable overlap, even symmetry, to be heard. Nørgård’s Third might steal, like a magpie, from any number of contemporary and classical idioms - and for a European symphony it acknowledges elements of American music, too - but it also abounds in a harmonic, even polyphonic, language, that would have been fully recognisable to both Wagner and Strauss.

The concert opened with the Prelude to Act I of Wagner’s Parsifal. Thomas Dausgaard is one of those interesting conductors who sets very fluid, some might argue hasty, tempos for almost all the works he conducts and yet the effect tends to be rather the opposite. It’s a skilful art for a conductor to have, and it worked beautifully for the Wagner. I’ve always thought this particular prelude from a Wagner opera the most difficult to bring off in concert - one recalls Nietzsche’s quote that this music “is the sort of thing to be found in Dante, and nowhere else” - and most performances do seem to sink into some kind of Dantesque quagmire. The best, on the other hand, tend to treat the music with great suppleness, looking inwards rather than being self-consciously controlled or over-grandiose. It’s true that the strings of the BBCSSO didn’t always have the lushness or depth of tone one might have craved, but the brass were magnificent, peerlessly golden-hued, and were careful to phrase their notes. There is a thin line in this music between playing that is refined and tinged with beauty - and playing that simply seems civilized. Dausgaard very much drew the former from his orchestra, even in the Prelude’s most powerful moments, such as the ‘Faith’ theme. This was a performance that managed to achieve tension, depth and spirituality.

I’m not really sure that Strauss’s Vier Letze Lieder, sung by the Swedish soprano Malin Byström, really managed to demonstrate her artistry as a singer, nor the sheer greatness of these songs: this was a performance that was both understated, and all but swallowed whole by the cathedral that is the Albert Hall. Here we have music of ravishing humanity that is born from the destruction and annihilation of a Germany - and Europe - in ruin; music that is unashamedly late Romantic, music that refuses to embrace the brutalism and atonality that would seduce other European composers post-1945 attempting to draw a line under that very culture that had been implicated in the terror of war and the Holocaust. But these are songs that also look forward, even if the music doesn’t: they are about rebirth and renewal, a reflection on decay and the past. They are about serenity and love; life and death.

Although there can be no doubt whatsoever that Strauss had in mind these songs should be sung by a soprano, it’s much less clear what kind of soprano voice he was writing for. The composer specifically asked for Kirsten Flagstad to give the premiere, though it would be crude to suggest this is the only kind of sound he imagined; the orchestration, and even the settings of the poems by Hesse and Eichendorff, don’t easily sit with one type of soprano as decades of performance have revealed. ‘Frühling’ can be a notable problem - and it was here. Byström’s dark, tenebrous voice felt notably chilly, even distant. I found the lack of colour a little unappealing, this song’s curving lines less a barometer of the season in which it’s set, more a prelude towards the rest of the cycle. She didn’t settle into ‘September’ either - again, there was nothing really distinctive about the intricate vocal writing - Byström rarely brought an expansiveness to the text; a tendency to clip phrases only made us more aware of the beautiful phrasing of individual instruments, especially the horn writing - played outstandingly well here.

As is often the case with richer, darker voices in these songs ‘Beim Schlafengehen’ and ‘Im Abendrot’ worked better: the autumnal, spiritual depth of the poems is instilled with almost unbearable soul-searching in the music. There is something unearthly about Strauss’s orchestration in the former, though Dausgaard’s tendency to push forward with his tempi did Byström few favours in the first two stanzas. Only after the magnificent violin solo - which comes to epitomise the journey of the soul - did this song become the marvel that it is, and only here did Byström really begin to penetrate into the heart of darkness of this music, floating a wonderful top B over the orchestra and holding it until it curved effortlessly into a beautifully held pianissimo. ‘Im Abendrot’ was even darker, though perhaps Byström didn’t really feel comfortable in the upper-most registers of the voice and though Strauss is quite clear his soloist should sing single syllables in parts of this final song the effect here was more than a little peremptory.

Nørgård Lars Skaaning.jpgPer Nørgård. Photo Credit: Lars Skaaning.

Despite having been born in 1932, Per Nørgård’s music has been scandalously underplayed at the Proms (though he’s doing rather better than the great Swedish symphonist, Allan Pettersson, who has yet to have any of his music played here, despite having died in 1980). Written between 1972-75, and premiered by Herbert Blomstedt in 1976, the Third is a titanic work, and the first of his symphonies to use choral forces. This is music that derives part of its inspiration from Nørgård’s Nordic forefathers, Sibelius and Holmboe, but it also owes a debt to late Mahler, and even to the early influence, that was to be absorbed into his later work, of the Swiss artist Adolf Wölfli, who spent much of his life in a psychiatric hospital, and from where so much of the undiluted chaos and unrepressed changes of mood in the music evolve. Nørgård’s music - especially the Third - differs markedly from that of Pettersson’s in one crucial sense: they might share a close tonality, even a common polyphony, they might also share a ferocity that can lead to climaxes that are shattering and then melt into serene tranquillity and unease, but Nørgård’s music simply isn’t driven by the same sense of lacerating despair, hypnotic bleakness or sheer terror that makes hearing a Pettersson symphony such a grim experience. Whether that is a plus is a matter of opinion, of course.

Indeed, Nørgård’s Third is inflected with American jazziness, jagged Latin rhythms and even mediaeval polyphony; it borrows from many different cultural identities, though you’ll find this musical appropriation solely at the service of the larger picture. The symphony opens on an ascent, a thundering piano chord that leads the music into a complex series of sections based on the “infinity series” - that is, endlessly similar music comparable to fractal geometry, though with the Third, as opposed to the Second Symphony from 1970 which was only based on part of the series, this symphony incorporates an infinity series that utilizes melody, harmony and rhythm. The climaxes become earth-shattering, underpinned by orchestration that includes the rumbling pedals of an organ (sounding suitably seismic in the Albert Hall, almost as if the earth’s crust had been ripped open). With the opening of the second movement, where the ideas splinter into a myriad of opposing directions, the music goes into a descent with it moving towards complete stillness. The ear picks up any number of details from the orchestra - the veiled ringing of cymbals that sound like rustling tinsel, the ghostly tolling of bells that fade into nothingness, the skeletal chiming of the xylophone sounding like broken bones, the spectral string harmonics that are played almost on the bridge of the instrument.

Perhaps inspired by his early 1970s opera, Gilgamesh, much of the final movement of the Third Symphony is taken up by a mixed chorus. It completely changes the aural picture of the work, drawing on Rilke’s ‘Singe die Gärten’, from his Sonnets to Orpheus and then at the end of the symphony a quotation from Schubert’s ‘Du bist die Ruh’, from Friedrich Rückert. You hear individual voices, as well as the combined choirs, giving the music a truly polyphonic texture.

Dausgaard - who gave the UK premiere of Nørgård’s Sixth Symphony at the Proms in 2002 - gave a compelling performance of the Third (though he has recorded the work in Denmark), and secured highly polished and brilliantly committed playing from the BBCSSO. The London Voices and National Youth Chamber Choir of Great Britain sang expertly, and solo voices were often thrilling. Only the almost universal inaudibility of the text diminished the otherwise sublime foundations on which much of the performance was based.

This is a symphony that sounds complicated, yet it is both cogent and direct. It is a work that embraces modernism, but is entirely founded on contemporary and classical models. It radiates emotion and depth of feeling, though in a somewhat incongruous way. The 86-year-old composer, who was present for this premiere, had good reason to be pleased with this concert - certainly one of the most note-worthy first performances of this year’s Proms.

Marc Bridle

PROM 51: Richard Wagner - Parsifal, Prelude to Act I; Richard Strauss - Vier Letze Lieder; Per Nørgård - Symphony No.3 (UK premiere)

Malin Byström (soprano), London Voices, National Youth Chamber Choir of Great Britain, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Dausgaard (conductor)

Royal Albert Hall, London; 20th August 2018.

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